China's Mountains of Garbage

Dead animals in rivers represent just one of the country's many waste disposal concerns.
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A migrant construction worker washes outside his dormitory after his shift, in Shanghai, on November 14, 2012. (Aly Song/Reuters)

It's not just dead pigs threatening China's waterways. There are also "trash mountains" to worry about.

That what the Chinese media has taken to calling towering heaps of trash, like the 23,000-sq. meter pile in Hebei province (link in Chinese) that sits parlously close to Beijing's water supply.

And though the trash mountain is no longer in use, local NGOs believe that the runoff of things like heavy metal and medical waste--what the villagers memorably call "trash soup"--now contaminate the reservoir and the surrounding soil.

Plus, the carcasses of pigs and chickens have attracted flocks of crows, which then destroy local crops as well. It's also just gross. The villagers say that in the summer, it attracts so many swarms of flies that "they turn white walls to black."

The one in Hebei might be the Everest of trash mountains, but China has many more. Just a day earlier, the Beijing Times reported on an eight-story-high trash mountain (link in Chinese) on the outskirts of Chaoyang district, in central Beijing, mostly made of construction waste (here's a good photo of the mountain). Residents complain that they can't open their windows when at home, and risk facing blinding dirt-storms when outside. The day before, the media reported on another,this one in Hangzhou. Last fall, a trash mountain in Lanzhou collapsed, burying a scavenger alive (link in Chinese). And here's video of another.

And that's just recently. In fact, there are enough trash mountains that artist Yao Lu has captured a slew of them, framing them in the style of China's iconic landscape painting style , known as "mountains and water."

But in addition to being yet another grotesque example of China's environmental problems, trash mountains highlight a problem that many developing countries face: as personal income and therefore consumption go up, so too does the amount of rubbish they produce.

Even though it currently generates around one-third of the world's trash, China doesn't produce anywhere near as much trash per person as many countries in the developed world.

But like everything else in China, that's changing fast. The country is expected to produce around three times as much trash as the U.S. by 2030, by some estimates. The central government is working fast to keep up with the pace of urbanization. As the government prioritizes environmental reforms, local governments may be empowered to take action. The city of Hengshui, also in Hebei, press-ganged locals and party members into a mammoth three-days-and-nights clean up of a garbage mountain that had been accumulating for 30 years, and then built a public square (Chinese) on the same spot to discourage them from fouling it up again.

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Gwynn Guilford is a reporter and editor for Quartz.

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